By Faisal Roble
War crimes against humanity in Ethiopia are as perennial as are its rivers. Acts of collective punishment, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and genocid, which together make war crimes against humanity, go deeper in Ethiopia than meets the eye. Emperor Minilik established modern Ethiopia by massacring Somalis, Oromo, Sidama, Kambata, Walayta and others; since then, crimes of war against humanity have been the modus operandi of the Ethiopian state.
The current crimes of war in Tigray are not the first nor will they be the last. If no one did anything in the past, particularly in the case of Somalis between 1994 and 2016, which is the subject of this essay, future or current crimes by the state must not go unnoticed.
It is never right to compare one pain to another; there is no intention here, therefore, to do so but only to share the Somali experiences which the world largely ignored. Also, the world has so far given less attention to the war brewing in Oromia. Nevertheless, the Tigray case is large in scope and gruesome in nature, thanks to social media, which has provided us unforgettable gory images the world will never forget.
As painful as crimes against humanity are in Tigray, the government of Ethiopia is recalcitrant and refuses to take responsibility for its actions. Adding insult to an injury, the American educated leader of EZEMA party, Berhanu Nega, lends support to the actions his government carried in Tigray. In other words, If the aristocracy of Germany were willing to commit holicost, there is nothing preventing an American educated econimist-turned-populist to endorse genocide for political reasons.
The current regime’s populist alibi that the West is undermining Ethiopian sovereignty is nonsensical and at best ahistorical. In reality, Ethiopia as we know it today owes its imperial geographic expressions to the WEST (a subject for another time). The West, particularly US and Great Britain, have since the 16th century supported this “Christian Island in a sea of Muslims!”
War Crimes against Somalis in Ethiopia
State terror against Somalis started in the 1800s with Ras Mekonen’s expeditionary soldiers coming down to Somali and Oromo regions. In the early 1920s, Major G. Swayne in particular provides us eyewitness accounts of how the gun-toting Ethiopian settlers killed, raped, and looted Somali villagers in and around Jigjiga all the way to Borama and Hargeisa (Seven Trips through Somaliland and A Visit to Abyssinia, 1921). The government of Great Britain stood on the sidelines while “Muhamadens” were killed and looted, writes Major Swayne.
Between 1941 and 1942, and 1948 and 1958, hundreds of villages on the outskirts of Jigjiga were leveled. Called the Geri Revolt, during this period the Ethiopian state killed thousands of innocent villagers and displaced entire communities (Sylvia Pankharist, 1945). As the last act of terror, Emperor Haile Sellassie’s regime publicly hanged 10 Somali men who were accused of working on behalf of the then Somali nationalist party, the Somali Youth League (Duale, 2020).
Dr. Hussein Bulhan, a professional psychiatrist and an academic, who at the time of hanging at the city’s public square, and accused of belonging to the SYL movement, was 10-years-old, recalled this:
“The Ethiopian authorities decided to execute ten innocent Somali men. On the day of the execution, every Somali in town- child, or adult-was forced to watch the terrifying spectacle.., I can never forget the plea of one-bearded-elder among the victims. With remarkable calm and dignity, he uttered one and only one request: “if my son and I must die, please let me go first and in a different pole.” That plea was never granted; the grisly execution proceeded as planned… The ten men were left hanging for several days for all in the city to see. Nightmares and repressed rage subsequently became part of our colonial heritage. When I later came to the United States, I understood the terror and rage of Black America had experienced during the long history of lynching.” (see the picture, showing the hanging of ten Somali men in Jigjiga in 1957).”
Come to the 1960s, the Aisha massacre, where hundreds of Somalis were murdered by the Ethiopian troops, is another colonial terror in the Somali psyche. Aisha is located between Dire Dhabe and Djibouti. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, state terror and crimes against humanity in the Somali region remained unabated. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed at Ina-guuxa, Dhagaxbuur, Mooyaha, Baabili, Qoraxay, Haji Salax, just to name a few at different times..
When it comes to war crimes against Somalis, the late emperor started it. Mangistu expanded it, including the displacement of 1/5 of the entire Somali population in the Somali region also known as the Ogaden region.
The crimes the TPLF-dominated EPRDF government committed against the Somalis between 2000 and 2016 are, however, unparalleled. Displacement, rape, torturous killings, even hanging of innocent civilians, had been part of the accusations leveled against Meles’ and Dasalaign Hail Mariam’s adminstrations.
In an Orwellian way, the crimes in Tigray, which started in November, 2020, reminds us of an earlier one engineered and executed by a Tigrua leader, the late Meles Zenawi. Adamant to squash the hundred-year-old Somali resistance, Mr. Zenawi carried out through his proxy regional leaders,most notably Abdulahi Lugbuur and Abdi Muhumed, alias Illay, the most gruesome and violent crimes of war against humanity in the Somali peninsula, including inside Somalia. Alas, as if history repeats itself, some of the crimes taking place in Tigray under the watch of Prime Minister Abiy remind us of that perpetrated against the Somalis.
What is unique to the methods of warfare of Ethiopian forces in the Somali case is the slitting of the neck of Somal victims by an iron wire (Roble, 2010). Jeffery Gentleman, in a 2007 New York Times article, revealed stories of horrendous massacres describing what Human Rights Watch denounced as “collective punishment” carried out by the government of Meles Zenawi.
Other accounts suggest that crimes in the Somali region were as bad as those in Darfur. “The United Nations advocacy director for Human Rights Watch has called Ogaden, which is the Somali Region, a “mini-Darfur”. Human Rights Watch says it has documented dozens of cases of severe abuse by Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden, including gang rapes, burned villages and what it calls “demonstration killings,” like hanging and beheading of populace, meant to terrorize the population”
Following suit, on March 2, 2008, the LA Times featured a front-page story comparing the blight of Somali region in Ethiopia to that of Darfur. Women were raped and then told that Ethiopian soldiers gave them the aids virus, causing rape survivors a life time truama.
The horrific account of Ms. Ridwan Sahid, a young Somali woman, for example, whose throat was slit by Ethiopian soldiers with their bare hands by using an iron wire, then leaving her for dead under a pile of corpses only to be accidentally discovered by returning villagers, is one of several stories that prompted HRW to dub Ethiopian state massacre against Somalis “collective punishment” a label not far removed from “genocide.” (Roble, 2010).
Peter Takirambudde, Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, put the crimes against humanities that took place in the Somali region this way:
“Ethiopian troops are destroying villages, confiscating livestock, forcing civilians to relocate, and destroying harvest and other food stocks intended for the civilian population.” Peter concludes by saying “whatever the military strategy behind them, these abuses violate the laws of war.” infact, per the United Nation’s definition of what qualifies for genocide, Somalis experienced genocide in the hands of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
The UN, EU, and AU watched Somali genocide without doing anything. Worse, the US supplied the Ethiopian army weapons, meals ready to eat, and handsome financial backing during the critical years of a sustained spree of crimes against Somalis.
Addis Ababa remains guilty for violating most of the 30articles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the General Assembly of the United Nations has endorsed. The International community which drafted and agreed upon these articles did not come to the help of Somalis.
Crimes against humanity have been regularly carried out by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. an institution built, funded, and trained for many years by the US. With the wrong leader at the palace, this army has the propensity to carry out serious crimes any day against any group in Ethiopia. Somalis, Oromo, and Tigrau are the most impacted groups thus far. If Chile and El-salvador were the shame of the US, Ethiopian defense forces are the African version of these Latine American saga of embarrassment and criminal enterprise.
What is happening in Tigray today is not, therefore, an abrasion but a military [business] model of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. Whether it was Emperor Haile Sellassie, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Meles Zenawi, Dasalaign Haile Mariam, or Dr. Abiy now, crimes against humanity of one group or another have been committed. In addition to the very feasible crimes in Tigray, parallel yet under-reported war crimes are gaining momentum in the Oromo region. It is therefore safe to say crimes against humanity have been a mainstay in the Ethiopian governance. So does the West remain oblivious for almost a quarter of a century.
It is never too late for the West to take decisive actions on what is happening in Tigray. Yes, it appears hypocritical that the largely Christian America and EU have watched in silence crimes of war against humanity perpetrated by the EPRDF regime against Somalis for over 2 decades. The same ENDF that placed a total blockade on the Somalia region between 2007 and 2010, resulting in the death of thounsands of innocent civilians by government-induced starvation, as well as a campaign of rape of women, is similarly masaccring Tigrau civilians.
This time, though, Eritrean soldiers who are on ENDF’s side and a viciously vindictive Amhara special police force with their own political scores to settle with TPLF, have exacerbated the conditions in Tigray. In fact, some humanitarian agencies on the ground suggest Eritrean troops and the Amhara special police force are unleashing most of the crimes against the people of Tigray.
It is high time that both the West and the rest of the world look at Ethiopia’s civilian as well as military leadership with a critical eye to potentially indict them at the international court of justice. This country’s crimes, both past and present, must be viewed through the lense of the victims be they Somalis, Oromo, Amhara, Tigrua, Sidama, Gumuz, or any nationality or ethnic group in the Ethiopian empire.
Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.
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